Women Battle the Breadline

These are ruthless times. The current food crisis is an assault on the already difficult lives of the poor in developing countries. Picture this: Afghan women are reported to buy leftover food, otherwise sold as fodder for cows and sheep. A group of Sri Lankan housewives protested outside a newspaper office demanding to know where they could find affordable rice. In Ivory Coast, women clashed over rising food prices; the unrest left one dead.

In these examples, and more spread across the planet, what is most striking is that the spectre of this catastrophe looms heaviest over poor women. In fact, it threatens them with critical and far-reaching ramifications that may shadow them for the rest of their lives.

It is a cruel paradox that women, despite their intimate relationship with food, are the worst affected. Millions of women cultivate, harvest, process and cook, leading Sisyphean lives that revolve around food. From the field to the kitchen and the plate, food has traditionally been an integral and constant part of women's roles. Statistics have long established that women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries (Global Employment Trends Model, International Labour Organization, 2006). This quintessential reality has also been historically captured in literature and art - the picture of the woman feeding the child or the family is central to many cultures.

Food has carried a range of cultural meanings for women and their identities. Yet, it is women who suffer the most during any kind of food crisis, primarily because of poor women's limited access to financial and agricultural resources. Often, poor women workers even lack control over their own wages. A food crisis worsens their already vulnerable situation. Besides shouldering the double burden of a job and household responsibilities, they may be forced to work longer hours or seek another small job. Working hours in insecure and unhealthy working conditions of the informal sector, these women also have no steady wages or social benefits.

Yet, this is not the description of a small group of women. Statistics reveal that poor women outnumber men in the informal sector: 'The majority — 50 to 90 percent — of the total female workforce in developing countries is employed in the informal economy, according to “Women, Work and Poverty, UNIFEM 2005. The immediate upshot for women is deteriorating health and higher stress levels, thus, further affecting their physical and financial well-being.

A food crisis also impairs female-headed households, created by the exodus of males for better wage employment. Estimates by the United Nations World Food Program suggest that in one out of three households around the world, women are the sole breadwinners. In almost all countries, female-headed households are located among the poorer strata of society and often have lower income than male-headed households. Experts fear that the food crisis could lead to an increase in violence, especially against poor women heading households.

Last but not least, women suffer more during a food crisis because of androcentric traditions and cultures that have always placed women at the bottom of the family's pecking order. The mother, wife, sister and daughter eat last - and even least - in many families. Moreover, poor women are already at a disadvantage when food and nutrients are distributed within a household.

Studies show that during lean periods, the calorie intake of the family is weighed towards its male members. In a culture that privileges the male, women imbibe this deep-rooted misogynist bias too and feed their sons better than they do their daughters. This is of particular concern for a country such as India, which is struggling to improve its statistics on child malnutrition.

According to the 2008 UNICEF State of the World report, malnutrition is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa - one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. In fact, the largest absolute number of newborn deaths occurs in South Asia, of which India bears the greatest burden - one million. If the food price crisis continues, or worsens, it may also adversely affect pregnant women and nursing mothers. A reversal or negative impact on women and child-related social indicators will slow down India's progress in achieving its health and nutrition-related targets under the Millennium Development Goals. Since malnutrition is both a cause and consequence of poverty, poor women have to be constantly protected from this vicious cycle.

Women and food security are closely interconnected. Yet, given their social, economic and cultural subordination, women are most susceptible to any food crisis. Therefore, the ideal and primary preventive measure needs to strike at the cultural roots of their marginalised position.

Concurrently and more immediately, short-term initiatives need to be designed and implemented to bulwark poor women against the food crisis. Crucially, women's key role in food production and security needs to be recognised and rewarded. It is ironic that cultures that project woman as a domestic goddess, almost as an embodiment of food itself, can be so blind when it comes to her own sustenance.

Women's Feature Service